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April 2007 Contents

UPA Job Bank

UPA 2007


There must be many I's in today's small UX teams: Jared Spool at NYC UPA

By Richard Herring

Richard D. Herring is a member of NYC UPA and Secretary of UsabilityNJ. You can reach him at rdherring5@yahoo.com.

Jared Spool led the NYC UPA membership in an energetic discussion of user experience successes and failures. Comments ranged widely but centered on three main questions.

  • Do successful UX teams share common characteristics?
  • What kinds of organizational approaches can teams take?
  • What kinds of people are most effective in these roles?

What is common among successful UX teams?

Almost all UX teams are small,...and they are getting smaller. Companies made research and marketing investments before the dot-com bust but resources are more modest now. For instance, the top twenty e-Commerce companies average only three User Experience team members on staff.

Successful UX teams must supplement their numbers with others’ research. They get customer knowledge from field support, legal, business, and marketing organizations to make best design decisions.

What are the three most common organizational approaches?

The first approach is “Consulting.” A core team works with selected projects to insure a good user experience. A downside to this approach is there are often many requests for UX teams and this approach does not scale well to high volume.

A second approach is “Review and Approve.” The UX team provides standards, guidelines and other usability resources to the enterprise. It reviews candidate products and “Passes” them as usable or provides guidance to make them more effective. This approach handles high volume better, but still poses bottlenecks. If demand is high, teams must request “waivers” or find ways to avoid the process. These run-arounds dilute product quality.

The third approach is “Educate and Administrate.” Skilled teacher-practitioners help others create great designs. They pass on best practices and use bad examples as “teachable moments.” They also administrate and provide centralized resources such as lab facilities and design libraries. Jared sees this as the most effective in the long run. It is also the most challenging.

What people are effective in these roles?

Usability “generalists” are more valuable than usability “specialists.” This is especially true in the days of small teams and tight budgets. The most valuable players are versed in multiple domains, not necessarily “standard” ones. For instance, experience in...two or more of the following areas would help: marketing, usability, Web development, business communications, technical illustration, and ethnography. The “Educate and Administrate” model also requires good people and communication skills.

Other new ideas

Leaving a meeting with new ideas is a delight. One such idea was expanding your “metrics” to include customer engagement and willingness to proselytize. “Time” and “error” measurements don't necessarily capture emotional markers. Jared also reminded members that there are many approaches to success. Introspection and “Empathic Emulation” are not part of the usability canon. However, two very successful companies rely principally on these techniques.


The “once-new” field called “usability” has moved from novelty into maturity. We must keep pace too. Jared reminds us to evolve it to improve productivity, foster professional versatility, and add the values of other disciplines. Otherwise a former novelty passes into a commodity, and perhaps, obscurity.

Jared Spool is quite a user experience himself. I have always known him to present ideas with the gift of enthusiasm. You can expect an entertaining, dynamic, and “non-boring” presentation. He provides insights with a strong side of mirth.


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